My favourite painting: Bernard Taylor

'I am fascinated by the drama clearly visible on the subjects’ faces and intrigued by the events that led to the painting of this scene'

bernard taylorPrince Rupert (1619–82), Colonel William Murray (dates unknown) and Colonel John Russell (1620–81), 1645, by William Dobson (1611–46), 59¼in by 78¼in, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Bernard Taylor says:
I have always been an admirer of William Dobson’s romantic portraits of my predecessor at Rycote, Montagu Bertie, and of the other Caroline great and good. During the Civil War, Dobson was in Oxford working in my old college, St John’s. The Ashmolean has just acquired its first Dobson, this lavish group portrait. I am fascinated by the drama clearly visible on the subjects’ faces and intrigued by the events that led to the painting of this scene. Bravo to all involved in returning this fantastic and iconic painting to Oxford and my imagination will run riot every time I walk past it.

Bernard Taylor is Chairman of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and lives at Rycote Park near Thame. He has recently been awarded a CBE

John McEwen comments on Prince Rupert, Colonel William Murray and Colonel John Russell:
William Dobson is praised in Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Aubrey described the artist’s father as ‘a very ingenious person (Master of Alienation Office); but he spending his estate upon women, necessity forced his son Will Dobson to be the most excellent Painter that England hath yet bred’. Dobson’s maternal grandfather was also noteworthy, a prominent member of the Mercers’ Company, the premier livery company.

Dobson served a seven-year apprenticeship in Holborn to William Peake, son of Robert Peake, Serjeant-Painter to James I. He then moved to St Martin’s Lane in the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields, close to the royal Court at Whitehall, a popular address for Court officials and artists seeking royal patronage. Among his neighbours were the Surveyor of the King’s Pictures and the German-born artist Francis Cleyn, to whom he was an assistant.

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During the Civil War, the Court was exiled to Oxford, where Dobson replaced the recently dead Van Dyck as its favourite portraitist. Among his first sitters were Charles I and his nephew, the Royalists’ dashing cavalry commander, Prince Rupert. In 1645, Rupert surrendered Bristol and he and his staff officers, Murray and Russell, were dismissed by the King. Subsequently, Rupert was officially exonerated and received a royal pardon.

This climactic group portrait (rare for Dobson) was commissioned by the seated Russell to celebrate the pardon, which Rupert holds. Loyalty to the Royalist cause, the Prince and friendship is symbolised by Murray staining his cockade in a fraternal glass of blood-red wine. The picture has now been acquired by the Ashmolean, its first Dobson.